Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

UA student’s family honored for fighting mental illness

Sarah Ashford
Sarah Ashford

The following is taken from a talk Sarah L. Ashford gave in September when she accepted the Daniel Moreno Recovery Award from the Aurora Foundation on behalf of her family. Her parents, Daniel Ashford and Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford, are both natives of Nogales, Ariz. Sarah is a descendant of Nogales’ pioneer Jewish families.

As a young woman attending University High School, and accepted into some of the nation’s top universities —Tufts, Vanderbilt, a full ride at the University of Arizona — I had no idea that the coming years of my life would be a wild ride.

I began to recognize shifts in my moods and thoughts in the middle of my high school years, but puberty had set in, and who really knows what a teenager is supposed to be thinking and feeling anyway? I remember reading a piece by Emerson called “Self-Reliance.” There was a quote that found my heart, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

For the decade that followed I found this line returning to me, over and over again.

After many other medical assessments, our primary care physician, who’d known me since I was 6, started me on anti-depressants at age 16. Even though we eventually found one that seemed to fit, depressive episodes continued to haunt me. I auditioned and was invited to play my violin and sing, traveling with Up With People after high school. Thus I declined all university offers for the time being. Up With People went out of business one month before I was to leave for training. This event, like many that impact people’s lives, launched my first major depression.

My roommate at the time intervened, calling my parents after I didn’t get out of bed for a week. It wasn’t until years later that my Mom told me about an eye-opening message from my therapist at the time. He told my parents, “I don’t want to find out one day that Sarah has taken her own life.” I wasn’t feeling right inside, but at that time I wasn’t able to see outside of myself.

I knew I didn’t want to be feeling what I was feeling (or not feeling), experiencing what I was experiencing, thinking what I was thinking. And yet, I was. I continually tried to remind myself that nothing was at last sacred but the integrity of my own mind, and yet I knew my own mind was betraying me. My awareness of what was happening to me turned moments into centuries and dreams into fears.

For years I cycled between what I thought was my normal energy, ambition and mental clarity to a numbness that pervaded everything I did. Finally, the persistent suggestions from a family friend and registered nurse broke through my stubbornness.

She had suggested that I might be bipolar. For a year or two I would nod my head, thinking to myself, “I’m not crazy.” Of all the surrenders I’ve experienced in recovery, the step I took in 2008 was probably the most important. I was desperate, wanting to be diagnosed with anything just to have my life back again.

The new psychiatrist I saw listened to my story, nodded his head and calmly said that I have classic bipolar disorder type 2: a brain chemistry imbalance.

Whoop dee doo! I thought. Yet when I got home that night, for the first time I Googled bipolar disorder. I sobbed, reading symptoms and stories that paralleled the battles I had been unable to understand.

My journey toward recovery has been painful and challenging. It has also been enlightening and humbling. Andrew Solomon, an author also in recovery from mental illness, wrote in “The Noonday Demon” about returning to self, “You feel the weight going, feel the way that the branches can recover much of their natural bent. Until you have got rid of the vine, you cannot think about what has been lost. But even with the vine gone, you may still have few leaves and shallow roots, and the rebuilding of your self cannot be achieved with any drugs that now exist … Rebuilding of the self in and after depression requires love, insight, work and most of all, time.”

I never thought about the rebuilding period. When you’re sick you just want to be better. You don’t think about the time it takes for your body and mind to find their new norm, to process what you’ve been through and who you’ve become. I had to learn that what I knew to be my 100 percent was really 150 percent, and not fear the need to relax and feel confident in setting goals.

Sometimes I resent the time I’ve lost and the experiences I’ve never had. Sometimes I even think what I’ve experienced has all been in my head. That I’ve been fooling myself the whole time. Imagine that. It’s like being hit in the face by someone directly in front of you and asking, “Did I do that to myself?”

The other night as I held my medications in one hand, glass of water in the other, I asked myself, “Who are you? What is this? Why do you have to do this?” I got angry. I felt self-stigma. I felt self-doubt and a battle between the world’s judgment and the scared person I have fought to sustain. I cried. I cried thinking that this is who I am. I cried thinking of how blessed I am to be right here, right now.

I have three semesters left at the UA. I’m majoring in neuroscience/cognitive science and psychology with minors in Spanish and molecular cellular biology (so I’m still kind of working on that 150 percent piece). I work in a genetics lab and plan to continue my studies in neurobiology, with an emphasis on mental illness.

I’m constantly grateful to be where I am, grateful to have insightful doctors and healers, grateful for friends who have kept it real, grateful to have the means for my medications and appointments, grateful to be willing to pursue recovery. I’m also grateful to have parents who have done their best to support me, as I learn about a process we never imagined would be ours, a process that has opened our eyes and hearts to a world that needs awareness, a process that is so much bigger than our own personal plight.

Clarke Romans, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness Southern Arizona said the other day to our Family-to-Family class, “the mother of stigma is ignorance.” My hope is that those experiencing mental disorders, no matter how mild or severe, can allow themselves time and the ability to surrender, ask questions, seek understanding and help. My hope is that we, as a society, recognize the importance of education regarding mental illness and that we can leave our ignorance behind. My hope is that we let go of stigma associated with an illness none of us choose, yet that affects us all.